We need to re-learn how to listen.
All of us.
We need to re-learn how to listen because if this election has taught us anything, it’s that our collective communications are now systemically broken. Band-aids can no longer fix us.
When I speak of communications, I’m referring to how we connect and educate ourselves through the media and how we interact as individuals.
So how have we found ourselves in this siloed, ignorant, fearful, untrusting land of barrier-building bubbles? Over the past quarter century, and especially this last decade, our communications have been fractured by the culmination of three detrimental trends.
The Collapse of Journalism:
The fourth branch of government as protected by the First Amendment is on life support. Having worked for the Associated Press from early 2001 through 2012, I had a front-row seat to the decline of potent journalism. I witnessed first hand the behind-the-scenes decisions that have heavily contributed to the mess we as a society are in today.
It’s no secret that newspapers are a dying breed, that almost all remaining newsrooms are struggling to keep afloat economically, and that painful cutbacks are par for the course. But what has yet to be discussed is how these election results are directly linked to the dire consequences of these harsh cutbacks. Specifically:
• National newsrooms no longer have a presence of effective reporters at the state and local level. Many now have only one individual covering entire regions, if they’re lucky. As a result, too many voices are not being heard, especially those away from urban hubs, and the resulting reporting has skewed toward assumptions and generalizations.
• Too many investigative journalists no longer have the support, resources and platform to do their jobs effectively, if allowed to do that type of work at all. As a result, superficiality reigns, and it’s almost impossible for the most critical stories of truth to power to see the light of day and be taken seriously.
• Newsrooms no longer have enough internal quality-control watchdogs who will stand up against the herd and fight for accuracy, accountability and the full-breadth of facts and perspectives. Those still trying to fight the good fight are overworked and marginalized, too frequently forced to sacrifice their health and quality of work. As a result, a disproportionate number of malleable yes-men and women newspeople end up picking their battles to prioritize surviving difficult work environments.
• Financial survival now only exists with the support of those with the deepest pockets, which has unveiled mixed results. While Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has successfully transformed the Washington Post into arguably the healthiest, highest-quality national publication in the country, too many others are now owned by billionaires who would prefer to convert hard news into propaganda.
The unfortunate side effect of all of this is that now, too many Americans who value knowledge are lost in a sea of inconsistency, confusion and broken trust, and far too many of those who feel ignored have surrendered to ignorance.
This dangerous lack of knowledge on all sides gives rise to fear, panic and uncertainty – which is the crossroads we now find ourselves.
The Rise of Infotainment:
This is not the first time an entertainer with the public persona of being a “tough guy” has been elected to govern the land. In that regard, Donald Trump is simply following the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What sets this election apart beyond the bigoted overtones, is that this is the first time we have witnessed the melding of sensationalist broadcast news with reality television. The various factions of broadcast media – entertainment, news and advertising – no longer simply intersect, but are now completely entwined. As a result, many Americans can no longer decipher the difference between hard news reporting and editorializing – or rather, the difference between logical facts and feelings. And whenever it comes to persuading action, feelings will almost always trump facts (pun intended).
A significant chunk of those who voted for Trump feel they know him as the commanding leader from “The Apprentice,” which the media defined as “reality” programming – a faulty label that can be misconstrued as appearing to be as real as “60 Minutes.” That can create a confusing misinterpretation of character when compared to the racist, misogynistic, psychopathic, narcissistic entertainer and salesman who was on display throughout the campaign.
Hillary Clinton’s public narrative is just as convoluted, as she has always been a deeply polarizing figure. She rose to prominence as first lady in tandem with the rise of 24-hour broadcast news scandals, from Whitewater to her husband’s impeachment. The news media helped define her in the 1990s as a shady individual, and then entertainment spent the next 16 years editorialized their dream factory prophecy that she was destined to be the first woman president. The seeds may have appeared to be innocent, like when the “Gilmore Girls” in the 2000s made quips about “when Hillary becomes president.” However, when “Saturday Night Live” repeatedly declared that she would win throughout their election coverage this past year, they helped tip the scales against her.
Also, both candidates rose to prominence in the same period that embraced the “anti-hero” as a preferred protagonist in our increasingly nihilistic popular storytelling. From “The Sopranos” to “Breaking Bad” to “House of Cards” to “How to Get Away With Murder” to name just a few, we have become comfortable rooting for shady characters who manipulatively rise to power.
These assertions may oversimplify the contrasting interpretation of these two characters. But make no mistake, they are carefully crafted characters in our real-world reality programming nonetheless. Our resulting acceptance of these blurred lines between fact and fiction has only added to our current conflict.
The Rise of Social Media:
With the rise of infotainment and demise of quality journalism, it’s not very surprising that social media has filled the gap as a go-to place for information and connection.
One of the biggest problems with social media is that it has enhanced the geographic and ideological divides in this country. Everyone can now comfortably preach to the choir in the safety of their own homes and only believe what they choose to believe. What began as a demographic divide between Fox News and MSNBC/Comedy Central has morphed into deep segregated trenches. Too much of what is shared through social media is propaganda masked as factual journalism.
That doesn’t mean that it’s all disinformation and polarizing opinions. I appreciate how social media provides an outlet for a wide range of voices to speak out. Former CBS lead anchor Dan Rather has been especially effective with his use Facebook as a tool for quality information and reflection to break through the noise.
However, all of the sharing doesn’t guarantee that voices are heard. In fact, the land of semi-anonymous commenting has provided a safe haven for extreme viewpoints to shout out without consequence and feel empowered to silence those with opposing outlooks. Instead of engaging in healthy debate, the format inspires us to ignore and demean those who question, and to respond by swiftly running away from conflict. As showcased in the three presidential debates, differences of opinion have now degraded into: I’m right. You’re wrong. Full stop.
And when it comes to how we communicate with one another in all facets of life, digital walls have become some of our greatest barriers. Just think about the evolution. For centuries we would connect by meeting up face to face and writing letters. Phone calls enabled us to maintain meaningful connections regardless of physical proximity. Emails replaced letters as a way to articulate deep thoughts with one another in real time.
But now the trend is to text, swipe, tweet, post and comment. While it makes it easy for anyone to speak, we are now embedded in a system that no longer requires us to listen.
We need to re-learn how to listen.
Our Opportunity to Course Correct:
While our uncertain future appears to be heading toward an unsettling fight in defense of inclusion, the overt exposure of our broken system has opened up the landscape where I can see flickers of opportunity to course correct.
As I wrote in my post “Conflicted States of America,” our deepest chasm is not the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. It’s between the extremists on both sides motivated by competition and narcissistic tendencies, unwilling to comprehend that the other side has a right to exist.
One of the most important ways for us to protect our human rights, civil liberties, economic futures and educational goals is to mend fences from the bottom up. To those of us on both sides of the aisle who thrive on cooperation, collaboration and connection – we must step up and reach out beyond our bubbles.
We must open ourselves up to empathy for the other side. We must recognize that not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist bigot who wants violent enforcement against anyone who isn’t a white working-class fundamentalist Christian. We also must recognize that not everyone who voted for Clinton is a smug, elitist asswipe or a criminal who appears to benefit by abusing the system. We also must not take any of the extreme characterizations personally, and instead learn from them and take responsibility for our actions.
Many individuals who voted for Trump also voted for Obama. They voted for the outsider who would shake up the system. They are suffering, so they voted for change in an attempt to feel heard.
So let’s come together, listen to each other, learn from one another, collaborate and brainstorm new solutions that can create positive change.
If you have any ideas for how we can bridge the chasm, please reach out.
I’m all ears.
You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org